William Turnbull 1922 - 2012


The Artist
Waddington Galleries, London
Private Collection, London


New York, Arnold Herstand & Co,William Turnbull: Recent Sculpture, 19 October - 22 November 1989, cast 1/6 exh

London, Waddington Galleries, William Turnbull, Recent Sculpture, 25 September - 19 October 1991, cat no.5 illus colour p15

Caracas, Galeria Freites, William Turnbull, 18 October - 10 November 1992, illus colour,p.21, cast 1/6 exhibited

Berlin, Galerie Michael Haas, William Turnbull, Berlin, 17 October- 28 November 1992, cat no.10, illus colour, cast 3/6 exh

London, Serpentine Gallery, William Turnbull: Bronze Idols and Untitled Paintings, 15 November 1995 - 7 January 1996, cast 1/6 exh

New York, Barbara Mathes Gallery, William Turnbull, New York, 15 October - 28 November 1998, illus, cast 5/6 exh


David Sylvester (intro.) and Patrick Elliott, William Turnbull: Sculpture and Paintings, Merrell Holberton, London, 1995, illuscolour p69, pl49
Amanda A. Davidson, The Sculpture of William Turnbull, The Henry Moore Foundation and Lund Humphries, 2005, cat no.259, illus b/w


In the late 1970s, following a period of experimentation with minimalism, Turnbull returned to making his totemic idols. He began by making numerous small works modelled in clay which closely resembled fertility figurines and prehistoric tools. In time, these small works once again developed into larger, body-sized sculptures, revisiting the artist's earlier themes of Masks, Heads, Horse and Idols in new ways.

Turnbull's second phase of idols have smoother surfaces than before, they are inscribed with fine marks, and he has experimented with different coloured patinas. Their forms are simpler and often flatter, presenting a front and back, where earlier works were conceived in the round. The simplicity of these forms is their strength, focusing attention on the symbolic flexibility of the works and the archetypal nature of their shapes.

Venus, 1984, Queen 1, 1987 (Tate Gallery Collection), Queen 2, 1988 and Ancestral Figure, 1988 all share the same basic flattened form. The first three have their own unique combination of rudimentary marks, indicating the female form, whereas Ancestral Figure differs, having a male chest area and phallus. Roger Bevan likens these simple flat forms to those of a churinga, an Aboriginal totem. Churingas were made from boards of wood or stone and decorated with designs in red ochre that represented the stories and history of the tribe[1]. Turnbull's late idols are also covered in designs, which have been inscribed into the plaster, after the overall form has dried. The marks often come from a personal vocabulary of symbols that Turnbull has been employing throughout his career and he uses them to consciously connect the new idols with those he has made before; as here, where the raised, curved, limb shape of Ancestral Figure, is almost identical to one on the surface of Ancestral Totem, 1956, made over thirty years earlier.

The surfaces of Turnbull's late sculptures are made up of three elements: texture, markings and colour. The overall texture is firstly built up in plaster, which once cast in bronze gives the appearance of an object that has been carved out of stone and weathered over time. The lines and indentations marking these works have been applied by the artist over this base texture. Initially this adds to the work looking primitive and ancient. However on examination, the marks appear fresh and unweathered, as though applied long after the shape itself was created. They are like tattoos on the skin of the work -artificial, human interventions on a more natural structure. Turnbull describes these markings as 'a symbolic way of taking your eyes around the sculpture'[2]. They draw the eye across the work but not necessarily in the same direction as the underlying texture. Finally, Turnbull has experimented with many colours of patina, and his more recent idols are beautifully mottled, the colour changing with the texture and the marks. The colour of Ancestral Figure varies across the edition - in this version it is a cool green-grey, others are brown in colour.

Extract adapted from Amanda A. Davidson, The Sculpture of William Turnbull, The Henry Moore Foundation in association with Lund Humphries, 2005, pp 62-68

[1] These forms can also be compared to ancient Egyptian schists, which were used to grind up pigments and afterwards engraved and used as votives.

[2] William Turnbull, Sculpture with a Presence, Straits Times, 19 September 1984